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‘Bill shock’ may hit cellphone users traveling overseas

Summertime … and the roamin’ is easy.

Navy ROTC Midshipman John Preis went on a nifty training mission last month, traveling from Okinawa to Guam via nuclear-powered submarine. After he returned to Los Angeles, he got a welcome-home gift from Verizon Wireless: a bill for nearly $1,300.

Sky-high cellphone bills are all too common at this time of year, as people head overseas on trips and overlook roaming charges that can run in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

A recent survey by the Federal Communications Commission found that 30 million Americans — 1 in 6 cellphone users — have encountered hefty bills involving roaming or data downloads. Regulators are toying with various remedies, but it’s unclear at this point what exactly they have in mind.

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Preis, 21, blames himself. He said Verizon sent him a text message in Guam warning that he would incur roaming charges when he sent an e-mail to his superior officer back in the States. He then forgot to turn off the phone’s roaming function.

“It was a stupid mistake,” Preis told me. “But it would have been nice if Verizon had let me know that roaming was still on.”

In fact, the company says it normally does just that, but was prevented in this case by a technical glitch.

A more troubling aspect is that Verizon doesn’t alert family-plan account holders — i.e. Mom or Dad — that roaming has been switched on. Aren’t they the ones who really need to know?

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Preis is gearing up for his senior year at MIT. He’s been in Navy ROTC since his freshman year and will enter the military as an ensign upon graduation.

It was easy to forget that his cellphone’s roaming function was on, Preis said, because he stayed at the Hyatt Hotel on Guam and believed the facility’s Wi-Fi service was covering any Internet access.

It wasn’t. Verizon’s roaming meter was going ka-ching at regular intervals as e-mail kept downloading into Preis’ phone.

He has one of four lines on a family account. Needless to say, Preis’ mom, Debbie Vodhanel, was astonished to open her monthly bill the other day and see a total amount due of $1,450.54, the bulk of which was the $1,287.44 roaming charge.

“Our hearts stopped,” she said. “We just couldn’t believe it.”

A Verizon service representative initially said there was nothing he could do, Vodhanel said, but ultimately relented a bit and agreed to cut $300 from the bill. But that still left almost $1,000 in charges.

Vodhanel was also surprised that, as the main account holder, she didn’t find out about the roaming until the bill arrived.

“Shouldn’t I have gotten at least one text as well?” she asked. “I would have immediately told my son to turn off his phone.”

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Heidi Flato, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, said the company doesn’t send initial roaming alerts to account holders, but both Vodhanel and Preis should have received follow-up text messages when $100 and then $250 in roaming charges were accrued.

She said a “technical problem affecting the alert system in certain countries” prevented the follow-up messages being sent in this case, but the problem has since been fixed.

In May, the FCC invited public comment on what it called “bill shock” among wireless customers.

In many cases, the bill shock involved teens who had gone way over data-plan limits sending text messages to friends. But there were also numerous cases of people who, like Preis, simply had no clue that roaming charges had kicked in while they were overseas.

The FCC noted that European phone companies are required to let wireless customers know when they’re running up huge roaming charges or nearing the limit for a particular data plan.

“We’re issuing a public notice to see if there’s any reason that American carriers can’t use similar automatic alerts to inform consumers when they are at risk of running up a high bill,” said Joel Gurin, head of the agency’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

I can’t think of one, considering that most wireless networks are largely automated and boast state-of-the-art technology.

As a starting point, all wireless carriers should notify people — cellphone users and bill payers — when roaming has kicked in, and then follow up with additional alerts informing you when you’ve hit at least $100, $250 and $500 in charges.

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Most phone companies say customers can easily check for themselves online or via their handsets, but that’s not good enough. Carriers should take the initiative in protecting customers from unwanted fees.

AT&T and Verizon allow parents to limit in advance how much data a family-plan cellphone can access. But this service costs about $5 a month. It shouldn’t cost anything.

The FCC now must decide whether it will proceed with new regulations covering bill shock, or whether it will negotiate voluntary rules with phone companies. A decision could be made within the next few months.

Meanwhile, I’m pleased to report that Verizon got in touch with Vodhanel and Preis after I contacted the company about their situation. The remainder of that big, fat roaming bill has been waived.

“They said it was because we’re such valued customers,” Vodhanel said.

As for Preis, he said he’s learned a valuable lesson from all this.

“Next time,” he said, “I’m not going to bring my phone to a foreign country.”

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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